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Posts Tagged ‘attorney’s fees’


Private Attorney General Doctrine Attorney’s Fees Proper For Party Successful in Invalidating Specific Plan Variances

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

In La Mirada Neighborhood Association v. City of Los Angeles (2018) 22 Cal.App.5th 1149, the Second District Court of Appeal held that attorneys’ fees were properly awarded per California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 (Section 1021.5) where the challengers were successful in conferring a significant benefit in the public interest—invalidating six of eight specific plan variances approved for a single project.

Under Section 1021.5, a trial court, at its discretion, may award attorneys’ fees to a successful party that acts as the catalyst that motivates a public agency to alter its behavior. A successful party confers a significant benefit on the general public if it enforces an important right affecting the public interest, and that enforcement benefits a large number of individuals. Further, a successful party is not precluded from seeking attorneys’ fees if, after obtaining a judgment that a project violates the zoning laws then in existence, a city later changes the zoning laws.

The City of Los Angeles (City) approved a Target Superstore Project, including eight variances from the applicable specific plan. These variances excused the Project from the specific plan’s height restrictions, many design element requirements, parking space limits, delivery time restrictions, and home delivery requirements. La Mirada Neighborhood Association (La Mirada), a community association, filed suit.

The trial court partially granted and partially denied La Mirada’s writ petition; six of the eight special plan variances were found invalid because they were not supported by substantial evidence. Only the parking variance and home delivery variance were upheld. The judgment also authorized La Mirada to seek attorneys’ fees. La Mirada moved for attorneys’ fees pursuant to Section 1021.5, the “private attorney general doctrine.” The trial court granted $793,817.50 to La Mirada for success in litigating the matter and conferring a significant benefit on the City’s residents. Target and the City appealed this award.

The Appellate Court opined that, while generally parties pay their own attorneys’ fees, Section 1021.5 is an exception to this rule to encourage parties to “pursue meritorious public interest litigation vindicating important rights and benefitting a broad swath of citizens.” Therefore, a party recovering attorneys’ fees must establish “(1) it is a successful party in an action, (2) the action has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest, (3) the action has conferred a significant benefit on the general public or a large class of persons, and (4) an award of attorney fees is appropriate in light of the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement, or of enforcement by one public entity against another public entity.”

The Court first established that La Mirada is a “successful party.” Under Section 1021.5, a successful party is one that “achieves its objectives.” Contrary to Target’s claim, a party need not receive a final judgement in a case, need not be successful on all claims, and need not personally benefit from a judgement. Instead, the Court stated, the definition is broad and measured by “the impact of the action.” Essentially, a party is successful where the lawsuit serves as a “catalyst that motivate[s] the defendant to alter its behavior.” Here, La Mirada was successful where six of the eight variances were set aside and the lawsuit motivated the City to amend the special plan to allow the Target Superstore. The lawsuit “directly prompt[ed] a legislative fix;” La Miranda was a successful party.

The Court then established that La Mirada conferred a significant benefit on the public in requiring the City to adhere to the law. This determination is a function of “(1) the significance of the benefit, and (2) the size of the class receiving [the] benefit.” The Court stated that “a benefit need not be monetary to be significant.” Rather, a party may secure a nonpecuniary benefit to the public, including the benefit of the proper enforcement of the law, if it can “show that the law being enforced furthers a significant policy.” Here, the Court found that the standard was clearly met because La Mirada’s lawsuit resulted in (1) the City adhering to legal requirements for granting variances, which the California Supreme Court has consistently recognized the importance of preserving the integrity of zoning laws as an important public policy, and (2) benefited a large group of individuals, as all residents of the City “benefit from the trial court’s ruling that holds the City Council’s zoning decisions to the letter and spirit of the Municipal Code.”

Target claimed that La Mirada was not successful because the validity of the Project under the subsequently-amended specific plan is still pending. Target claimed that La Mirada’s objective was to stop the Project from ever being built and that the City may still prevail in obtaining a ruling that the Project is valid under the new zoning law. The Court found that this argument was both factually inaccurate and legally untenable. First, the Court explained that La Mirada’s stated goal in filing the writ petition was to set aside and invalidate the eight variances granted by the City and to enjoin further construction of the Project contingent on the validity of the eight variances. The Court stated that “[a]t no point did [La Mirada] allege that their writ petitions were aimed at stopping the Project forevermore.”

Secondly, the Court explained that success under Section 1021.5 “does not require a showing that the successful party put the entire dispute to rest for once and all.” In fact, the code authorizes “interim attorney fee awards” for successes conferring significant benefits before a matter is finalized. In this case, the Court explained that, since the trial court’s judgment that the specific plan variances were invalid was left intact after the first appeal, the judgment is more final than the typical interim ruling. It can be considered “interim only against the backdrop of the broader litigation between the parties, which continues only because the City amended the zoning laws and thereby promoted a new round of petitions challenging the Project” during this appeal. Further, the Court explained, a Court may only grant writ relief after applying the law in existence at the time of its decision. Target’s argument, on the other hand, would require parties to succeed under the law in existence at time and “as it might be amended in the future.” The Court, however, declined “to define success as requiring one to achieve the impossible.”

The Court held the attorneys’ fee award to La Mirada did not demonstrate an abuse of the trial court’s discretion.

Key Point:

A party is “successful” for the purposes of being granted an award of attorney’s fees under the private attorney general doctrine where it achieves at least a portion of the stated goals of bringing the petition.

Court Denies Attorney’s Fees Where Successful Petitioner Does Not Confer a Significant Benefit to Public and Discharges Writ of Mandate After Compliance

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

In an unpublished opinion, California Oak Foundation v. County of Tehama (2012) 2012 Cal. App. Unpub. Lexis 3970, the California Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a decision denying petitioner’s request for attorney’s fees on the basis that their successful challenge to a golf course community project, which Tehama County approved in 2006, did not significantly benefit the general public. The court also affirmed the order to discharge a writ of mandate requiring Tehama County to consider certain evidence as it related to I-5 mitigation fees to be imposed on the project.

The court had previously issued a writ of mandate requiring the county to comply with CEQA by considering evidence brought forth by the county’s economic consultant pertaining to I-5 traffic mitigation fees. In 2010, the county reapproved the project without any changes, on the apparent basis that the decline in home prices between 2006 and 2010 made higher fees to mitigate I-5 traffic infeasible.

After the county reapproved the project, petitioner brought suit seeking attorney’s fees incurred during the first case, and also arguing that the trial court improperly discharged the writ because the county employed flawed reasoning when it considered I-5 mitigation fees. The court denied petitioner’s attorney’s fees request. Because the county reapproved the project without any changes, petitioner’s lawsuit conferred no significant benefit to the general public. Because no significant benefit to the general public resulted from their lawsuit, petitioner failed to satisfy a requirement for attorney’s fees to be awarded in such a case. Next, the court held the county acted reasonably when it concluded the lower home prices in 2010 made higher I-5 traffic mitigation fees infeasible. Because the county articulated reasonable grounds for its conclusion that higher I-5 mitigation fees were infeasible, the county complied with CEQA and the writ of mandate was properly discharged.

Written By: Tina Thomas, Chris Butcher and Grant Taylor (law clerk)
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For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

City Appeal of Trial Court Order Found Moot where City had Complied with the Order

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

In Building a Better Redondo v. City of Redondo Beach (February 22, 2012) __ Cal.App.4th __ (Case No. 124769), a group of slow-growth advocates brought a petition for writ of mandate and declaratory relief against the City of Redondo Beach, seeking an order compelling the city to submit a local coastal program amendment to public vote in compliance with a charter amendment the city had recently enacted, which required any “major change in allowable land use” to be approved by city voters. The city argued that the local coastal program amendment predated the charter amendment and thus was not governed by the charter amendment. The trial court found the local coastal program amendment constituted a major change in allowable land use and ordered the city to place the amendment before the voters. Although the city appealed the judgment, it also voluntarily complied with the court’s order and the voters approved the amendment. The city’s final certification of the local coastal program followed. Subsequently, the trial court awarded petitioners $313,000 in attorney fees.

The appellate court dismissed the city’s appeal from the judgment as moot and affirmed the award of attorney fees. The court held that the results of the election approving the amendment were indisputably in effect for all purposes and would remain so regardless of the outcome of the appeal. Therefore, granting relief from the judgment would have no practical effect and the city conceded as much. No exception to the mootness doctrine applied. The case did not involve a matter of continuing public interest since it involved fact-specific issues that were unlikely to recur. The city claimed its appeal was not moot because the award of attorney fees was dependent upon the propriety of the trial court’s ruling on the merits of the action. According to the city, a reversal of the trial court ruling on the merits necessarily would require a reversal of any award of attorney fees since petitioner would no longer qualify as a prevailing or successful party for purposes of the attorney fee claim. The court disagreed with the contention that the appeal of the award of attorney fees prevented it from finding the appeal on the merits moot in this case, distinguishing the cases upon which the city relied.

The court also upheld the trial court award of attorney fees. The trial court did not abuse its discretion when it found that the claimed hourly fees, although substantial, were not unreasonably high in view of the quality of the work and counsel’s special expertise. The court found that the award was properly based on the reasonable market value of the services, even though the petitioners had been charged a reduced fee.

Key Point:

In finding that the appeal of the attorney fee claim did not revive the appeal on the merits, the court distinguished CEQA cases where the appeal involved the rights of third parties who exercised their own, separate right of appeal from judgments finding an EIR inadequate. In these CEQA cases cited by the city, the lead agency’s decision to comply with the writ and perform further environmental review did not render appeal of the judgment moot. The court in this case indicated that the dispositive fact saving the appeal from dismissal for mootness was not that the appeal involved an attorney fee award (despite language in at least one CEQA case finding an appeal on the merits was not moot because the award of attorney fees depended on the correctness of the ruling on the merits), but that the appeal was brought by the real party in interest who is aggrieved and has standing to appeal regardless of the agency’s decision to comply with the order.

Written By: Tina Thomas and Amy Higuera

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For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

Court Awards Agency’s Costs of Preparing Administrative Record Despite Petitioner Electing to Prepare the Record

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

In an unpublished decision, Landwatch San Luis Obispo v. Cambria Community Serv. Dist., 2d Civil No. B229545 (2012), the Court upheld a trial court’s cost award of $14,615.41 to the Cambria Community Service District for time spent preparing the administrative record.  The District initially sought almost $24,000.  In reaching the amount awarded, the trial court denied the majority of the costs claimed for work performed by the District’s general manager, its engineer and its attorney in preparing the transcript and granted the full amount of costs sought for work performed by the District’s clerk and three administrative assistants.

Petitioner appealed arguing that no costs should have been awarded because it elected to prepare the administrative record and the District never informed the Petitioner how much it would cost to prepare the transcripts for the administrative record.   The Court acknowledged that the Petitioner requested the District provide it with a cost estimate to prepare the transcripts.  However, the Court concluded that nothing in CEQA requires the public agency to provide a cost estimate for preparing the record.  The Court also rejected Petitioner’s claim that the costs were not reasonable and necessary.  The Court instead deferred to the trial court’s determination of reasonableness.

Written By: Tina Thomas and Chris Butcher

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For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

Northern District Awards Attorney’s Fees at Enhanced Rate above EAJA Cap in a Case Against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

In Center for Biological Diversity, et al. v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management, et al., (2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10555, January 30, 2012), the Court granted Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees in the amount of $1,003,155.87, despite Defendants claim that the fees were excessive.  Among other things, Defendants argued that the case was overstaffed,  travel time should not be compensated and hourly rates for paralegals and law clerks should not be compensated above the rates allowed in the Equal Access to Justice Act  (“EAJA”, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)).  First, the Court disagreed with the US. Bureau of Land Management’s (“BLM”) assertion that eight attorneys working at various times on a complex litigation matter was considered overstaffing.  Second, the Court also disagreed with BLM that enhanced rates for travel time should not be awarded, but capped at EAJA rates.  BLM argued that Plaintiffs cannot show that “specialized skills” were needed for travel time to support enhanced rates.  The Court, however, granted 33.3 hours of travel time at the enhanced rate because the record indicated that Plaintiffs’ attorney was working on the case during the travel time and thus, his “specialized skills” were required.  Finally, BLM argued that the rates claimed for paralegals and law clerks should not be compensated above the EAJA cap.  However, the Court noted that in Richlin Security Service Company v. Chertoff, 553 U.S. 571, 589 (2008), the Supreme Court rejected this very argument, holding that “a prevailing party that satisfies EAJA’s other requirements may recover its paralegal fees from the government at prevailing market rate.”

Key point:

Travel time can be awarded in an attorneys’ fee motion at an enhanced rate if an attorney can show that he or she was working during the travel time.

Written By: Tina Thomas and Michele Tong

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For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.